OTT Tänak shrugged aside an early error to hold a comfortable lead at the end of a fascinating opening leg of Copec Rally Chile on Friday.
The Toyota Yaris driver won three of the six special stages on slippery forest roads south of Concepción to head Sébastien Ogier by 22.4sec. Tänak’s teammate Jari-Matti Latvala was a further 6.4sec back in third.
Inconsistent grip in the morning and poor visibility caused by bright sunshine piercing a dense tree canopy ensured a demanding welcome for drivers at the FIA World Rally Championship’s first visit to Chile.
They also struggled for confidence with new pace notes, which proved far from accurate in many cases after being made in thick fog during reconnaissance earlier in the week.
Tänak overshot a corner and stalled his engine at a muddy bridge in the opening speed test but won the next test to grab the lead.
He dominated the afternoon to win both gravel stages in a car that handled better after mid-leg changes, stretching his lead from a handful of seconds to almost half a minute.
“At lunchtime the engineers did a good job fine-tuning the car. The feeling improved and the confidence is there. It won’t be easy tomorrow but we’ll try to keep focused and hopefully we can keep our rhythm,” the Estonian said.
Ogier made an identical error in the opening special stage but the Frenchman quickly grabbed second. He edged further clear in the afternoon on drier roads, enjoying better performance from his Citroën C3 than in Argentina a fortnight ago.
Latvala had a rollercoaster day. The Finn shared fastest time in the opening test with Kris Meeke but several mistakes, culminating in a final stage engine stall when on course for fastest time, kept him down in third.
Championship leader Thierry Neuville held fourth in a Hyundai i20, only 0.7sec behind. His morning push was interrupted when a red flag, issued for safety reasons, halted his attack on the second stage but a notional time kept him in the hunt.
Meeke’s day worsened after a strong opening test. He lacked confidence and slid to fifth in his Yaris, 2.2sec clear of nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb. Loeb got to grips with his i20 on his gravel debut in the car and climbed to sixth after a powerful afternoon.
Elfyn Evans fell back to seventh in a Ford Fiesta, more than a minute clear of Andreas Mikkelsen. The Norwegian lacked assurance in the faster sections and almost rolled his i20 in the penultimate stage, but he edged ahead of Teemu Suninen in the final test.
The leaderboard was completed by Esapekka Lappi, who lost time with an overshoot.
Saturday’s action is based in similar territory south of Concepción, sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Biobió river. Two identical loops of three speed stages, covering a mix of forest tracks and more open roads are driven morning and afternoon, covering 121.16km.
1 O. Tänak/M. Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) 1:24:12.8
2 S. Ogier/Ingrassia (Citroën C3 WRC) +22.4
3 J-M Latvala/M. Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +28.8
4 T. Neuville/N. Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +29.5
5 K. Meeke/S. Marshall (Toyota Yaris WRC) +46.5
6 S. Loeb/D. Elena (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +48.7
7 E. Evans/S. Martin (Ford Fiesta WRC) +1:01.4
8 A. Mikkelsen/A. Jæger-Amland (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +2:08.1
9 T. Suninen/M. Salminen (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2:09.1
10 E. Lappi/J. Ferm (Citroën C3 WRC) +2:18.3